mmeadows and King Tuff are EVI Rippers

Kyle Thomas, Kristin Slipp, and Cole Kamen-Green dive deep on their love for the “space horn.”

Kyle Thomas is the Vermont-born, LA-based artist behind King Tuff. Kristin Slipp is a member of the Dirty Projectors and Cole Kamen-Green is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who has collaborated with the likes of Beyonce, Lorde, and Laurie Anderson; together, they make up the NYC-based pop duo mmeadows. King Tuff’s latest record, Smalltown Stardust, just came out last week on Sub Pop, and mmeadows’s debut full-length, Light Moves Around You, is out this Friday (2/3), so to celebrate, the three friends got on a Zoom call to talk their shared love for the EVI instrument, Vermont’s “special sauce,” and more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Kyle Thomas: Where are you? 

Kristin Slipp: We’re in New York.

Cole Kamen-Green: Hell’s Kitchen.

Kyle: In Hell’s Kitchen! That sounds terrifying. 

Kristin: Yeah, it can be. 

Cole: We live in artist housing.

Kyle: Oh, yeah? 

Kristin: Yeah. It’s like a lottery system, and we won the lottery.

Kyle: Do you know Joanna?

Kristin: Yeah, Joanna Sternberg lives in this building. She grew up here, and I think her parents are musicians, too.

Kyle: Yeah, they’re the best. Well, I haven’t met the parents, but Joanna is amazing.

Kristin: Yeah, Joanna is incredible. So we see her now and again, just floating around the common spaces in the building.

Kyle: Seems like a magical place.

Kristin: It’s… it’s got its charm! [Laughs.] It’s considered a naturally occurring retirement community, because the majority of the population that lives here is over retirement age. It’s a trip. It’s an interesting vibe, but it’s cool. It’s affordable, and it subsidizes our careers, basically, so it’s pretty cool. 

So I’m really excited to connect you with Cole, because of your mutual adoration of the EVI.

Kyle: Thank you so much for asking me. I hope I’m qualified enough to talk about it.

Kristin: I would say you’re definitely qualified.

Kyle: Who is? It’s such a weird thing!

Kristin: It’s definitely an esoteric instrument, and it’s something about our live set that people are really intrigued by. They’re like, “what is that?” Like, after every show.

Cole: I’m sure you get that question every show you play.

Kyle: I mean, that’s kind of why I got it, because I knew that people would be like, “What the fuck is happening?” Because that’s what I was like when I first saw Marshall Allen play it.

Cole: I was watching some videos of him playing it in various settings, and it’s just like it’s so wild — like him just being 90.

Kyle: It’s insane that he’s still out there. It’s unbelievable.

Cole: It’s really inspiring, just giving all that energy at such such an age. It’s so cool.

Kyle: Yeah. That’s the type of musician I want to be when I’m old, you know. Like, just truly himself, a freak.

Kristin: Yeah, uncompromising, unrelenting. And you know, Sun Ra was such a huge personality that I imagine being in his band, it would would have been really easy to get over overshadowed. I think it’s really cool that his legacy carries on in Marshall Allen.

Kyle: And it’s still good. It’s still amazing. That’s the thing that happens with so many older musicians — it just kind of doesn’t have that thing it used to have. But when I’ve seen [the Arkestra], it’s blown my mind.

Kristin: When did you first see Marshall Allen play the EV? Like, when did you come across it?

Kyle: Well, I first saw the Arkestra play I think around 2009 or ‘10 maybe. I don’t know the exact year, but I was playing All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK and they were playing. It was the My Bloody Valentine curated one. I saw them play then, but I don’t remember him playing the EVI. He might have, but I don’t remember. But then I guess the next time I would have seen them play was at maybe Zebulon in LA and. He busted that shit out, and that night I went home and bought it on eBay.

Kristin: [Laughs.] Oh, my god.

Kyle: I was just so dumbfounded by it. I mean, there were a few amazing things that happened at that show — like I was standing in the front row, and at one point he just came over to me and played the saxophone right in front of my face, and I felt like I got lightning bolts shot into my soul. [Laughs.] I was just like, I’ve been blessed. But yeah, then he broke that out and I just didn’t understand what was going on. I was like, How is there this instrument I’ve never seen before? And somehow I figured out what it was like. I think I went home and I was like…

Cole: Yeah, what was the first thing you put in Google?

Kyle: I think it was probably like, “weird air controlled synthesizer.” And I’d known about an EWI — you know, the newer, more saxophone styled, just, like, stick ones. But somehow I figured it out and I found one on eBay and I just was like, You know what? It’s time. This was 2017, maybe.

Kristin: When did you buy yours?

Cole: Probably 2019, but I’d really wanted it for a while.

Kyle: So how did you discover it?

Cole: The first time I saw it was my friend Justin Walter, who at the time was in this band called NOMO, which was had this singer, Natalie Bergman, with Elliot Bergman. They were playing kind of groove-oriented music, and he busted it out — this was in Boston, at the Middle East. And I had a similar experience. I’m a trumpet player, that’s like my home, but I’ve always been interested in synthesized sounds. I’d always seen the EWI, and it’s been corny to me. 

Kristin: And you owned one for a second.

Cole: For a second, and I was like, Eugh.

Kyle: You were like, “Eew-I.”

Cole: [Laughs.] But yeah, it was kind of similar thing. I was like, I need that. And they’re so rare — I had set up a Google alert to see when one was for sale, and a couple came up but they were, like, thousands of dollars. I was like, I can’t afford this right now. But I eventually got around to it. I mean, I’ve seen you play it, and I feel like it’s like in the Marshall Allen like vocabulary a little bit.

Kyle: Right, right. I’m not a trumpet player. I took some sax lessons at one point, but I would by no means call myself a wind instrument player. But yeah, so I’m very much inspired by that very… psycho style, I would call it. I have learned how to do the scale on it, and I have learned the fingerings and figured out songs and melodies on it.

Cole: Oh, cool.

Kyle:  But that was the thing. I got it, and then I was playing it on tour and stuff, and then I saw Marshall Allen play it again and I couldn’t tell if he actually was playing psycho style, or actually knew all the fingerings. Do you know what I mean?

Kristin: Yeah. And was hearing the melody he was playing before he was playing, just moving his fingers around.

Cole: I’ve seen a couple instances where he’s doing things that sound like he knows what’s going on.

Kyle: I mean, I would assume he does, because he is an amazing, amazing horn player. But it made me feel a little better when I saw him play it again. And I was like, That’s pretty much what it sounds like when I play it. [Laughs.] Or, obviously I’m not going to compare myself to him.

Cole: I really like how you play it. I mean, obviously it’s wild, but I like the sound you’ve chosen and the tuning you choose. It seems like you have a relationship with it.

Kyle: I definitely feel something when I’m playing it. I can hear what I want to do and I can do it, you know? 

Kristin: Yeah.

Cole: Do you ever use it for composition, or in recording specific things?

Kyle: I have recorded it a little bit, but it’s actually broken right now, so I couldn’t use it on my [new] album. One of the keys is not working. 

Cole: Wow, bummer. 

Kyle: And also the glide — that’s never had a cap on it. It’s just like a shard of sharp plastic. So every time I use it, I’m just getting, like, stabbed. [Laughs.] It adds that element of danger when I’m playing.

Kristin: [Laughs.] Well, Cole has owned several EVs — correct? Three?

Cole: Three. I have two OGs, like the [Steiner] Crumar. And then I have this other one that this guy built in Sweden, because I didn’t want to — when we’re playing together, Kristin is often tuning to it.

Kristin: We use it a lot for bass sounds.

Kyle: The analog bass synth sound of it is insane.

Kristin: It’s incredible. It’s so good. But the OG versions were going out of tune pretty often — the longer he was using on stage, the more it would go out of tune, so I couldn’t tune to it and it was fucking with me. And so we had a replica built that’s effectually like a MIDI controller, but operates the same way.

Cole: Yeah, it’s got a lot more bells and whistles and it sounds amazing, but the number one thing is it’s reliable for using it for bass. If it’s out of tune…

Kristin: No bueno.

Cole: And also, there’s, like, three people who know how to fix these things. So if it’s like, this is my bass instrument, slash, one of the most important instruments on stage and it breaks on the road, I can’t go to a tech that anyone would just recommend to me on the road and know how to deal with.

Kyle: Yeah. So I was kind of looking it up and I saw one that’s a MIDI controlled one, and it says you can do polyphonic on some of these new ones, which sounds insane to me.

Cole: Yeah, you can. I don’t, I use it with a monophonic synth synth, like a moog.

Kyle: OK, so that’s cool. You can just use whatever synth you want with it.

Cole: Yeah. And when I put a recording of the Moog next to a recording of the Crumar, it’s very similar, and it makes me very happy. 

Kyle: Yes. 

Cole: But yeah, I don’t use that function. I try to maintain the fact that this is a limited instrument. 

Kyle: Definitely. 

Cole: Because if I want to play polyphonic chords that have a lot of voice-leading and moving around, I’ll just play a synth that has keys, you know? I like the limitations of it. And Kristin has tried to rip on it a couple of times.

Kristin: Yeah, it doesn’t go very well. I’m not an EV ripper. I mean, I could practice. I should practice maybe.

Kyle: The amazing thing that I found when I was playing it was, at one point I realized I was circular breathing with it, which I’ve never been able to do. But, like, it takes so little air that I can actually do it just naturally. And it blew my mind. I was like, Holy shit!

Cole: That’s awesome.

Kristin: I love it. So our band is just the two of us, and we don’t have any guitars on stage or anything, so when the EV comes out to play, it’s a real moment. He brings out this EV and people really do go wild for it. They come right up to the stage when we’re trying to pack our gear and we’re just frazzled, and they’re like, “What is that Tell me everything about it!” And it’s just like, “I’ll tell you later.”

Cole: Yeah. I’ve gotten like, “What is that? Is that a breathalyzer? Is that a melodica? Is that like a space peen?”

Kyle: I’ve gotten bong a lot. I always called it my space horn, so I would always be like, “Are you ready for the space horn?” And I would never tell anyone what it actually is.

Kristin: Oh, maybe we shouldn’t tell anyone.

Kyle: We’re really blowing up the spot with this article here.

Cole: But, you know, it is an instrument that… I don’t know, I feel like it has so much personality like a wind instrument. The way you play it and the sound that you make out of it is very different than mine. It’s very different, but it’s the same synth. And that is something I think is super unique about this wind synth. 

Kyle: It’s very expressive. And like with any instrument, that is the key, putting your own personality into it. With drums or something, that’s the most amazing thing, when you can hear who is playing the drums — like, “Oh, I know that’s Ringo,” or whatever, just by hearing it. And I think that can be true for any instrument. So everyone should have space horns, is the moral.

Kristin: [Laughs.] So you’re you’re in Vermont. Are you living there now?

Kyle: No, I’m here for a month. I came here for holidays, but also I’m playing a New Year’s show, and there’s just some other stuff going on. So I’m here for the month of December. And it is strange — it just gets dark so early.

Kristin: Yeah, it really does. I figured you would be in LA, and so you’d be all, like, sunshine and butterflies.

Kyle: I mean, I’m honestly sick of the sunshine. I’ve been in LA for over 10 years and I’m like, I don’t want to be hot anymore. I want to wear my jackets

Cole: The fall like sartorial choices are…

Kristin: You just get to wear more clothes.

Kyle: You can’t look good in summer clothes.

Kristin: It takes a certain person to be able to pull it off, and most of us can’t

Kyle: I tell you what, honey, it’s not me!

Kristin: [Laughs.] You’re not into tank tops, flip flops, little shorty shorties? 

Kyle: No, I can rock short short.

Kristin: I do believe that. 

Kyle: I need layers. I want to be like Monet and his garden. Have you seen those pictures of Monet, where he’s got all these amazing layers on, this long coat? He’s out there like Santa Claus in his flower garden. That’s where I’m headed.

Kristin: Well, so that’s good, you get to experience some cold.

Kyle: Getting a little cold air. You know, there’s really nothing to do here.

Kristin: Where in Vermont are you?

Kyle:  It’s called Brattleboro. You know, I have friends here, obviously, but I don’t have a car. I’m staying at my parents house, and I’m like, “I guess I’ll walk to town now.” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t really know anyone here anymore, so I’m just going to go to this store again, and then I’ll eat at the co-op again, and then I guess I’ll walk home.”

Kristin: [Laughs.] Do we know anyone who lives in Brattleboro? I feel like we’ve played some shows there. Do you know Kal Traver? She’s from Burlington, and she’s a really good friend of ours.

Kyle: Kalbells

Kristin: Yeah. 

Cole: You Vermonters have some special sauce. Some special harmonic sauce.

Kyle: There’s something going on here, for sure. It’s funny, especially Brattleboro — it’s a town of 12,000 people, but a lot of music has come out of here, and a lot of weirdos. Or a lot of people have passed through here, like Merrill [Garbus] from Tune-Yards used to live here. Just a lot of different people from very different kind of worlds of music. Like I grew up with Matt from Matt and Kim, and Sam Amidon. And Zach Phillips, who lives here, has got a band called Fievel Is Glauque. They just put out a really, really cool record. He’s also an otherworldly kind of genius. But yeah, [Brattleboro] is really interesting. It’s a very strange little town. 

Cole: Are you playing any New York shows?

Kristin: You just announced a tour, right? Where are you going?

Kyle: I’m touring all of March, a little bit of April. I’m playing it Elsewhere.

Kristin: Awesome, we’ll be there.

Kyle: Are you guys coming to LA?

Kristin: Yeah, we will be out in LA, I think. TBD. Well, it was just a pleasure to chat!

Kyle: It was a joy. It really was. 

Cole: I’m glad we could connect on this weird instrument.

Kyle: We shall duet soon.

Longtime collaborators Kristin Slipp and Cole Kamen-Green come together as a duo in mmeadows. The band’s distinct sound is informed by their deep musical backgrounds: Kristin is a current member of Dirty Projectors, while Cole has worked directly with Beyoncé on two albums, Beyoncé and Four, Lorde on Melodrama and Solar Power, as well as Laurie Anderson and Meshell Ndegeocello.